In a split decision, the federal court found that as United States government employees, Transportation Security Administration agents have “sovereign immunity” from lawsuits resulting from the performance of their official duties.
A federal appeals court in Philadelphia has affirmed a lower court ruling in favor of TSA agents. In a 2-1 decision, the panel of judges found that because TSA screeners are not technically law enforcement officers, they, as a group, enjoy sovereign immunity from lawsuits based on nearly any accusations of misconduct in the performance of their duties.
Although many TSA screeners wear badges, perform searches and enforce federal laws, the court opinion concluded that because TSA agents do not have arrest powers, their actions are in fact protected by federal laws that prevent government employees from facing lawsuits for their official activities. Federal law enforcement officials are generally not protected by sovereign immunity. According to the majority decision, because TSA officers are not law enforcement, claims of abuse by screeners can not be heard.
The ruling is the result of a case in which a passenger at Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) claimed to have been subject to abuse and false arrest at the hands of TSA screeners. Nadine Pellegrino had sued the TSA and individual screeners for nearly $100,000.
“Based on our review of the statute’s text, purpose, and legislative history, as well as precedent from this Court and other Courts of Appeals, we now reach the conclusion that we foreshadowed in Vanderklok and hold that TSA screeners are not ‘investigative or law enforcement officers’ under the law enforcement proviso,” the court said in its ruling. “Pellegrino’s claims are therefore barred by the Government’s sovereign immunity, and we will affirm the District Court’s judgment dismissing this action.”